Monica Scott’s eldest son, Da’Quaylon, is 14 years old, but during the pandemic, he has had to take a job—unpaid—as a babysitter. For the past few months, he’s been looking after his brothers, ages 7 and 9, day and night, while his mother often works seven days a week to support the family. This puts a lot of pressure on him, says Scott. “You know, he’s at a mature age, he’s into sports, he wants to participate in sports, and he can’t. He gets overwhelmed at times.” They live in Lakeland, Florida, the westernmost city of Polk County, which has had one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the state—so high that even the smallest liberties and pleasures have eroded for the kids. The little ones are not even allowed to walk to the nearby ice cream truck by themselves anymore.
After the pandemic struck, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Polk County, which once offered after-school care, shut down. Now, each morning, Scott leaves her sons on their own when she goes to her job at McDonald’s. She’s paid $9.25 an hour, though she’s been there four years, with only a tiny hazard bonus ($79, she says). To make ends meet, she has a second job, working for Amazon sorting boxes, from 1:30 to 10 p.m., at the airport. Despite all of her hard work, she and her children can’t afford a permanent home: The family lives in a motel. While she’s still searching for affordable day care, she worries how “trustworthy” any cut-rate child care option would be. “It’s a lose-lose situation,” she says.
Scott is one of millions of parents in this country for whom child care in the age of the coronavirus is a bewildering crisis. As the debate about how to safely send American kids back to school rages on, day care remains mostly undiscussed by members of the political establishment, a quieter emergency. Yet according to the data gathered by the RAPID-EC surveying project from the University of Oregon, the pandemic day care crisis has been severely straining families, especially low-income ones.
It’s also affecting the comparatively well-off—middle-class families not used to feeling that every last social structure has failed them, from the federal government to public (and private) schools. Day care is now one of those essential structures that elicits the same great confusion and desperation. How do parents attain and afford it in a pandemic? And if they can, should they risk it? Are only the richest parents and their children, who can spring for their own live-in or around-the-clock nannies and tutors, surviving this unscathed?
Some—but far from all—parents benefited directly from the CARES Act set-aside of $3.5 billion, says child care expert Elliot Haspel, because many states temporarily waived copays for lower-income families already receiving child care subsidies. (By contrast, Delta Airlines alone received more from CARES than the entire child care industry.) But the Center for Law and Social Policy and the National Women’s Law Center estimate that a true stabilization package for the duration of the pandemic would cost $9.6 billion a month. Even that is a pittance compared with what is needed longer-term. A genuine universal child care system with high-quality care and solid salaries across the board would be more like a $70 billion annual proposition, according to Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others (Haspel and his ilk estimate it will cost much more: One Economic Policy Institute paper puts the cost between $337 billion and $495 billion).
Across the country, Heather Carey, a medical-surgical nurse in Berlin, Vermont, has fewer financial worries: She and her husband, who is in the military and will deploy this winter, earn roughly $110,000 a year. Her day care nightmare is not the $11,000 a year her family spends for their two children for a program based in a woman’s home, but the fear that it will get shut down due to the coronavirus. “We have been truly fortunate, but I don’t know that it will always remain that way,” says Carey. “I feel like we’re going to be put in a situation because she is an in-home day care provider where she may end up having to close.” According to a survey released in July by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, 40 percent of child care programs have said they will have to close permanently without adequate outside help from the government.
Thousands of miles from both Scott and Carey, Susana Morales and Oscar Marquez, Angelenos who are adjunct professors in the California State University system teaching Latin American studies and Chicana/o studies, once were planning to send their toddler to a subsidized on-campus day care. But when the campus closed, they scrambled. In the summer, they struggled to send their 7-year-old, Iyari, and 2-year-old, Santiago, to a camp and day care, respectively, that cost a total of $1,600 a month, almost as much as their rent, eating up much of what the two earn these days. Now, Santiago is going to day care, which costs $1,000, and Iyari is starting second grade distance learning—making “it almost impossible to work from home,” says Marquez. They worry about Santi in day care but enrolled him despite the potential health risk because the kids “were having a really hard time with being sheltered in place. They were really suffering.” The couple is prepping for herculean course loads this semester. “I have eight courses, and Susana has six,” says Marquez. “Sí, ahorita te pongo la tele,” Morales murmured to the kids before turning to talk with Arlene Mejorado, one of the photographers for this story. For the fall, “we’re figuring out: What the heck are we supposed to do?”
The stories of the parents photographed here reveal not only how few resources are given to families bowing under the weight of this crisis but also how starved the day care system always was. The United States tends to overlook day care, viewing children’s care as something to be handled by individuals, not by the state. This makes America an anomaly globally. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. provides a lower percentage of its GDP to child care than many industrialized countries. While child care is 1.6 percent of the GDP of Sweden, it’s less than 0.5 percent in the United States.
To better understand the plight of these parents—along with millions of others like them—I contacted some of the groups that currently organize on behalf of parents. Chief among them is MomsRising.org. It had an $8.9 million annual budget in 2017 and is the largest mothers’ organization in the country, with a million members. MomsRising’s director, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, says the organization has “fought hard to get real [political] acknowledgment that child care is not an industry but an infrastructure, and without it, parents cannot get to work.”
One of her biggest battles has been to get the public to see that child care has been part of the slew of pandemic debacles. “For many, many families, pre-pandemic day care emergencies,” she says, “are now full-blown crises.”
A handful of other groups align with MomsRising. But what if the pandemic could lead to a far greater mass movement for parents, and mothers in particular? It makes me think we need one fix above all others: a parents lobby organizing and fighting to make real and permanent changes for moms and dads during the pandemic and beyond. It’s not so far-fetched. In other countries, women’s movements have created sufficient shifts in child care (in the 1960s and ’70s, Swedish feminists lobbied zealously for the expansion of child care, to great effect). That lobby would, among other more conventional requests, fight for a parental version of universal basic income that would be in effect at least as long as the pandemic continues its fugue. (I’ve suggested that here, pre-pandemic, and in my last book Squeezed.) One model to look to: AARP, the behemoth that has represented American seniors since 1958 and had $8,020,000 in total lobbying expenditures alone in 2019.
How could we build off of MomsRising and other groups’ successes? What holds us back?
I found plenty of things.
For starters, child care is needed most during “a challenging stage people go through in life,” says Elizabeth Palley, social work professor and co-author of In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy. (Perhaps not so coincidentally, Palley and I are friends through our daughters and have at times pooled day care.) After hustling through those first five years, often without realizing that the problem isn’t theirs alone and that most developed countries don’t make it anywhere near as hard for mothers in particular, parents tend to move on in their preoccupations. In addition, the earliest years are a stressful period in which parents, especially poorer mothers, are worked to the bone or simply tired out by their kids. “Parents usually don’t have time to be politically engaged in the same way” as some of the retirees of AARP, says Palley.
The absence of affordable, safe day care during the pandemic is also the legacy of the long history of contempt and even hatred for the idea of women working outside of the home. In the late 19th century, when the carapace of our fragile child care system was created, it was intended for the “unfortunate” poorest women, who had no other choice but to work. Given the stigma placed upon women, and poor women in particular, it’s almost as if day care was intended from the start to be a weak system, a sort of punishment for needing care and thus for not having a husband or some other means of support. Racism has also long played a role in the child care system. Many of the working mothers early on were women of color, and some of the first day care providers were enslaved people caring for white children.
Child care has been stigmatized in the modern era as well. In 1971, President Richard Nixon vetoed a major bill proposing national day care, saying that such a measure would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing”—in other words deriding universal child care as a sort of proxy Red Menace.
And as recently as 2013, a Pew poll showed that 51 percent of those surveyed believed that their kids were better off if their mother stays at home with them, while only 8 percent said that fathers shouldn’t work. The result of centuries of this sort of gender and racial bias is that “we don’t have a child care system. We have a child care non-system,” says Haspel.
The pandemic not only exposed this child care non-system for all to see but also shone light on gender variations lurking within families where couples previously imagined there was parity. Up in Vermont, Carey says that if day care were to shut down, she’d be the one likely to have to quit her job. Amid lockdowns, furloughs, and layoffs, the absence or unaffordability of child care is starting to hold back women’s employment.
There’s also the way that kids—at home so much more than before—may carry different expectations of their mothers, now constantly sitting near them in the living room, than they do of their fathers. “It doesn’t matter if Dad’s in charge,” says Morales. “I’m at the computer, and they’re over there: ‘Mommy, mommy, mommy.’ … It’s hard for me to push my kids away.”
Men who work from home have been found by researchers to be more likely to maintain their personal and professional boundaries. For fathers, it can even increase their productivity. According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, professional women with children do not share this experience: “A recurring finding is that women are more likely to carry out more domestic responsibilities while working flexibly, whereas men are more likely to prioritize and expand their work spheres.”
As Allison Pugh, a sociologist of families at the University of Virginia, puts it: “American couples have long been papering over gender-based conflicts about who does what in the home and how they have been using other women’s paid labor—mostly women of color—to hide those conflicts from themselves. Now we can’t hide anymore.”
But mother and father turning on each other—or parents judging one another for their supposed failures—is also something of a diversion, a battle royal that distracts families from the truth: that we have been betrayed by our political gentry. Children’s health and well-being has been placed squarely upon each mother, each family, each teacher, and each day care provider, rather than upon any political leader, all of whom should be taking clear national responsibility.
Individual parents have also been responsible for pushing even the smallest federal benefits for families. MomsRising has directed 406,632 citizen political responses to Congress since the pandemic started. Its members have made 41,790 phone calls to representatives since March supporting COVID-19 relief packages.
In response, our political leadership has been all over the map. Joe Biden has put forth a proposal for a 10-year, $775 billion plan for care in general, including that of elders and disabled adults. The campaign’s policy agenda also includes 12 weeks of paid family leave and national free universal prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds. At the Republican National Convention, Ivanka Trump attempted to claim day care as a victory for her and her father. “Four years ago I told you my father would focus on making child care affordable and accessible,” she said. “As part of Republican tax cuts in 2019 alone, our child tax credit put over $2,000 into the pockets of 40 million American families,” a credit which works out to a benefit of at most $166 a month. Trump’s most notable pandemic child care plan seemed to me to consist of shoving schools’ doors open. (A recent campaign video inaccurately asserted children were “virtually immune” to the coronavirus.)
To me this suggests that even if Democrats prevail in November, more pressure must be applied to save the child care “system,” while the crisis is still burning, which means any incipient parents movement must form all the faster.
In the meantime, it’s parents like Monica Scott—and her caregiver son—who are suffering the most during this national child care crisis. “I am putting my life on the line as an essential worker with no help, and at the same time my kids need to be somewhere.
“They are going to have to make programs for working parents!” says Scott. “If school doesn’t open up, which I think it shouldn’t … I am believing that something good is going to happen.”
Photography produced by Brittany M. Powell.
This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.